The Treaty of Versailles at 100: Wilson's Progressive Abomination

Today marks the hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.  Though the treaty ended World War I — supposedly the "war to end all wars" — it practically ensured future conflict and charted a course directly toward World War II.  A century after its signing, it remains an object lesson reminding us what kind of disasters lurk when self-righteous progressives, who think they can run the world, get their hands on the levers of power.

The basis of the treaty was the progressive internationalism of college professor–turned-president Woodrow Wilson.  Wilson had only two years of political experience as governor of New Jersey after leaving the ivory tower of Princeton when he became president.  A self-righteous Presbyterian progressive, Wilson detested the grubby deal-making of practical politics and suffused religious moralism with academic idealism into his governing style.

Wilson was a political scientist by trade, but his academic specialty was constitutional government, not foreign policy.  With the exception of two ill planned incursions into Mexico in 1914 and 1916, Wilson resisted military involvement in foreign affairs during his first term, despite constant goading from his warmongering progressive rival Theodore Roosevelt to commit U.S. forces into World War I in Europe.  Indeed, Wilson won re-election in 1916 campaigning on the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War."

It's not clear if that was a cynical ploy or not: on April 2, 1917, only a month after his second inauguration, Wilson asked Congress to enter the European war and declare war on Germany.

In fact, Wilson had no good reason to enter the war.  No direct American interests were at stake.  Ostensibly, his actions were motivated by Germany's decision to engage in "unrestricted submarine warfare," but Wilson clearly had bigger things in mind: he wanted to spread his progressive ideals to the world.  Couching American war aims in progressive, utopian — almost messianic — terms, Wilson told Congress:

We are now about to accept... battle with this natural foe to liberty and shall, if necessary, spend the whole force of the nation to check and nullify its pretensions and its power. We are glad ... to fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples ... for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience. The world must be made safe for democracy[.] ... We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind.

It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war ... civilization itself seeming to be in the balance.  But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for ... democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.

Wilson's pie-in-the-sky call for "universal domination" of "democracy" to "make the world itself free" stood in direct contrast to almost 130 years of American foreign policy.  George Washington himself had wisely counseled Americans to observe:

The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible[.] ... Europe has a set of Primary interests which to us have none ... therefore, it must be unwise to implicate ourselves ... in the ... vicissitudes of her politics, or the ... collisions of her friendships or enmities.

Wilson ignored him.  Thinking he could "redeem the world," Wilson committed two million American troops to France.  A hundred thousand of them died — but that was a small price to pay for universal democracy in the mind of a progressive academic: "America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth."

Eight months after committing troops to war, Wilson cobbled together a list of progressive war aims in his Fourteen Points.  They demanded an end to secret deals (i.e., the Treaty of London and the Sykes-Picot Agreement); "ethnic self-determination" for Poland and Austro-Hungarian territories that would soon become Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia; "a free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims," and finally, a collective security organization, the League of Nations, which would be formed by a "covenant" (using the biblical term for a pact with God Himself) to maintain peace and territorial security of all nations.

Upon reading the Fourteen Points, French prime minister George "the Tiger" Clemenceau is said to have sniggered, "God gave us only ten."

In 1919, Wilson became the first sitting president to venture overseas, practically abandoning his domestic duties and spending six months at the Paris Peace Conference personally negotiating the Treaty of Versailles.  He was joined by "The Inquiry," a group of over 100 academics and professors who surely knew how to fix the world and usher in Wilson's global utopia.

Initially, Wilson and his Fourteen Points were wildly popular.  He was greeted as if he were a latter-day rock star in France and Italy.  Delegations from ethnic groups around the world came to Paris to beg Wilson for "self-determination."  (His French and British counterparts, Clemenceau and David Lloyd George, sneered that Wilson "thought he was Jesus Christ.")

But they were soon to be disappointed.  Wilson's aims were so grandiose that they could not possibly be fulfilled.  Italians, who had switched sides in the war to gain territory on the Dalmatian coast, became disillusioned when Wilson refused to accede to Italian demands.  The negotiators did create Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, but all three were destined to become communist dictatorships, and the latter two failed to outlast the twentieth century.

Worst of all was Wilson's hypocrisy when it came to dealing with Germany.  Wilson had railed against German imperialism, but turned a blind eye to the biggest empire at the Conference: Great Britain.  A pro-British bigot, Wilson was contemptuous of Irish demands for self-determination and had been disgusted by the Easter Rising of 1916.  Wilson granted Britain and France Ottoman territories they had secretly agreed to divvy up in the Sykes-Picot agreement — not as "colonies," but under the guise of League of Nations "mandates."  He willingly partitioned Germany into two non-contiguous territories, separated by the Polish Corridor, and placed millions of ethnic Germans in the newly created nation of Czechoslovakia and the Free City of Danzig.  When the Locarno Treaties were signed in 1925, admitting Germany to the League of Nations, an up-and-coming German politician and decorated war veteran lambasted Wilson as a liar who cared about "self-determination" for everyone but the Germans.

He was right.

The Treaty of Versailles stripped Germany of its air force and its navy and forced it to give up territory it had won on the Eastern Front from its historic enemy, Russia.  But by 1919, Bolsheviks were in control of Russia, and they were threatening global communist revolution.  The treaty had limited the German army to only 100,000 men, so the National Socialist German Workers' Party formed the paramilitary Sturmabteilung to do battle with the communists.  Their leader railed against the "Jewish Bolshevism" of Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Rosa Luxembourg, and Bela Kun.

Germany abandoned imperial government and created a parliamentary democracy — and in the 1932 elections, the NSDAP won enough seats in the Reichstag to get Adolf Hitler named chancellor.

Perfectly democratic...just what Prof. Wilson had asked for.

Wilson did not live to see a democratically elected Hitler.  Returning to the U.S. after the treaty had been signed, Wilson encountered resistance from Republican senators — led by his archenemy, Henry Cabot Lodge — who were concerned that the League of Nations' collective security scheme would usurp Congress's power to declare war.  Frustrated with senators whom he regarded as small-minded idiots, Wilson undertook a national speaking tour to drum up public support for ratification of the treaty.  Traveling by rail and speaking to crowds numbering in the thousands prior to electronic amplification, the amount of exertion was considerable.  Wilson had a stroke in Colorado halfway through the tour.  Paralyzed on his right side and unable to speak, Wilson returned to Washington.  When the Senate voted on the treaty, a majority voted in favor of ratification — but it failed to gain the two thirds required by the Constitution.  The crippled Wilson never regained his health and died in 1924.

Though the U.S. refused to ratify the treaty during Wilson's lifetime, his progressive ideals nonetheless came to dominate American foreign policy thinking in both parties during the subsequent century.

Why has the U.S. had troops in Afghanistan for eighteen years and counting?  Why, thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, does NATO exist, imposing collective security obligations on the U.S. to defend unto death the borders of Latvia, Iceland — and Albania?  Why does it have more concern for the borders of Crimea, Ukraine, South Korea, and the Golan than it does for its own borders?  Why did the late Sen. Jon McCain want Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO?  Why did presidential candidate Hillary Clinton advocate a no-fly zone over Syria?  Why did her husband bomb Belgrade?  Why did the U.S. invade Iraq?  Why is it threatening war with Iran and Venezuela as of this writing?

You can thank Wilsonian progressivism for all of that.

British economist John Maynard Keynes called the treaty "a Carthaginian peace" — but that was not true.  Carthage had been utterly destroyed by Rome, but Germany was not utterly destroyed by the allies until 1945, along with its ally Japan.  Only then did the U.S. have the luxury of trying to implement Wilsonian ideals by creating a "League of Nations 2.0" — the United Nations.  The lesson of the Treaty of Versailles is that international politics is always dominated by raw power — not by progressive ideals.

Implementing Wilsonian progressivism has made the U.S. a hypocritical empire that denies itself is such.  The U.S. engages in military adventurism to support "democracy" (the most recent example being the backing of the "Syrian Democratic Forces") except when it doesn't: the shah of Iran, the Diem coup in Vietnam, Ferdinand Marcos, and Syngman Rhee stand as a few (of many) uncomfortable examples, along with our alliance with the Soviet communist dictatorship against the "democratic" Hitler.

The Founders would have been aghast to see what has become of U.S. foreign policy since Wilson upended the Monroe Doctrine and committed the U.S. to a global crusade for "democracy."  The nation was, after all, founded as — in Ben Franklin's words — "a republic...if you can keep it."

We have not kept it.  A truly conservative foreign policy would be one that returned to the republican ideals of our Founding and to the sage advice of John Quincy Adams: "[America] goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.  She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.  She is the champion and vindicator only of her own." 

The author defended his academic dissertation "Woodrow Wilson and International Human Rights" in 2000.

Image: Cliff via Flickr (cropped).

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